Some made big plays, others made progress: Here’s what we saw during Panthers OTAs

Panthers Rivera sports Harold Varner III club head t-shirt at practice

Professional golfer Harold Varner III stopped by the Carolina Panthers OTA practice on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Varner a Gastonia, NC native spent time talking with head coach Ron Rivera along a sideline.
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Professional golfer Harold Varner III stopped by the Carolina Panthers OTA practice on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Varner a Gastonia, NC native spent time talking with head coach Ron Rivera along a sideline.

The Carolina Panthers began organized team activities this week, practicing in front of media Wednesday to the sounds of the active construction site at the practice fields.

That was a not-so-subtle reminder that the team is making progress toward its climate-controlled practice bubble, which owner David Tepper hopes is ready for use by the start of the preseason, when the Panthers return from training camp in Spartanburg, S.C.

Here are some other observations from the first of three OTAs availabilities.

Speaking of making progress, quarterback Cam Newton is still on track as he rehabs from offseason shoulder surgery. Newton did not throw Wednesday — he’s expected to be fully cleared by training camp. Head coach Ron Rivera remains optimistic that Newton will hit that deadline.

“They’ll continue to go through the process ... I’m optimistic,” he said after practice. “I think he’s done a great job. Everything I’ve seen tells me that he’s doing a great job. We’ll just continue to go forward with it...

“It’s a really big ‘not that big of a deal.’”

Three quarterbacks will battle for the backup job throughout the spring and summer workouts. But Wednesday the day seemed to belong to the most veteran among them, Taylor Heinicke.

Heinicke, who had offseason surgery to repair the torn triceps he suffered in his only NFL start in Week 16, unfurled a few beautiful deep throws and showed great mobility in the pocket against a younger, speedier group of pass-rushers.

However, the first big defensive play of the day was a pass breakup by linebacker Luke Kuechly on a Heinicke-thrown ball.

Considering the talent on the other side, Heinicke shouldn’t feel too bad about that.

The media is not allowed to report on specific formations or personnel groupings, according to the team, but Rivera confirmed after practice that the transition to becoming more multiple on defense — meaning more three- and four-man fronts, and hybrid and disguised looks — is going well.

“I think what (defensive coordinator Eric Washington) and the guys have done in terms of the installation has been outstanding, and their retention and their ability to go out and operate and execute the things we are putting in has been really good,” said Rivera. “We are playing so many multiple-style offenses that you can’t just line up and let them attack ... It was kind of neat to see the things that you think you’re capable of doing, and then watching them (happen).”

The second big defensive play of the day was an interception by cornerback Ross Cockrell, who is cleared to play after breaking both his tibia and fibula in training camp last summer.

Cockrell provides the depth the Panthers need at cornerback behind Donte Jackson and James Bradberry, and can also play nickel.

Safety Rashaan Gaulden had a solid workout, keeping pace with speedy receiver Curtis Samuel on a deep ball (Samuel had a gorgeous deep catch later in the morning) and would have had a “sack” if contact had been allowed.

Rivera confirmed that Gaulden played “both safety and nickel for us” Tuesday and Wednesday, and was pleased with his performance.

Receiver Jarius Wright had one of the better catches, stretching out to reel in a well-led Heinicke deep ball.

Cornerback Corn Elder, who will compete at nickel, switched jersey numbers from No. 35 to No. 29.

Some players are taking it slow through OTAs — which are voluntary workouts — as they continue to work through injuries.

Veteran receiver Torrey Smith participated Tuesday but not Wednesday, while center Matt Paradis and tackle Daryl Williams were limited.

Tight end Ian Thomas worked on the sideline with trainers due to what Rivera said was “a sore leg.” Thomas’ injury doesn’t appear serious, but with veteran tight end Greg Olsen healthy, the Panthers need to install several two-tight-ends packages in their offense — which might explain why they currently have seven of them on the roster.

A source also told the Observer that receiver Mose Frazier, who has been a two-year practice squad player, broke his arm in Tuesday’s workouts.

Wide receivers D.J. Moore, Terry Godwin and Damion Jeanpierre Jr., look like the Panthers’ best-three punt returners early on.

The early returns from the defensive secondary are positive. Rivera said this year’s group offers as much continuity as any other secondary he’s coached in Carolina.

Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.
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